Soil is one of the most precious resources on the planet. As the global population grows, and the climate continues to warm, the structure and function of soils could change. In this focus issue we have gathered together articles - ranging from primary research to opinion pieces - that explore the sensitivity of soils to climate and land use change, and that highlight the key role that soils play in shaping the environment and human society.



Investing in soils pp295


The world's soils are under pressure from climate change and population growth. Investors' interest is surging, but scientists have yet to pay soils due tribute.



Evaporation in focus pp296

A. J. Dolman and R. A. M. de Jeu


The hydrological cycle is expected to accelerate as temperatures rise and the capacity of the air to carry moisture increases. At this point in time, our understanding of the coupling of soil moisture and precipitation is still limited and relies heavily on model-based evidence.



Biodiversity in the dark pp297 - 298

Diana H. Wall, Richard D. Bardgett and Eugene F. Kelly


A multitude of organisms makes soils the fertile factories of food and fibre production, decomposition and nutrient cycling that they are. But tying changes in soil biodiversity to shifts in ecosystem function is a daunting task.

Tripling crop yields in tropical Africa pp299 - 300

Pedro A. Sánchez


Between 1960 and 2000, Asian and Latin American food production tripled, thanks to the use of high-yielding varieties of crops. Africa can follow suit, but only if soil nutrient depletion is addressed.


Books and Arts

Soil and Culture pp301

Joshua Schimel


Soils define culture. Throughout history soil has defined human societies perhaps more strongly than any other single environmental variable. Its fertility defines our food, our population and our economy. Its colours define our art. Its organisms may define our health.


News & Views

Climate change: Microbial mitigation pp303 - 304

Göran I. Ågren


Increasing temperatures stimulate the decomposition of soil organic matter in the short term. But a shift in microbial carbon allocation could mitigate this response over longer periods of time.

Weathering: Rock to regolith pp305 - 306

Susan L. Brantley


The amount of pore space in most unweathered granite is too small to support a plant-based ecosystem. But porosity grows as intact rock interacts with surface waters beneath the soil.

Soil science: Arctic thaw pp306 - 307

Hermann F. Jungkunst


The organic matter stored in frozen Arctic soils could release significant quantities of carbon dioxide and methane on thawing. Now, laboratory experiments show that re-wetting of previously thawed permafrost could increase nitrous oxide production by 20-fold.


Progress Article

The impact of agricultural soil erosion on biogeochemical cycling pp311 - 314

John N. Quinton, Gerard Govers, Kristof Van Oost and Richard D. Bardgett


Soils are the main terrestrial reservoir of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and of organic carbon. Data synthesis reveals that soil erosion can result in lateral fluxes of these nutrients that are similar in magnitude to those induced by fertilizer application and crop removal.


Review Article

Reduction of forest soil respiration in response to nitrogen deposition pp315 - 322

I. A. Janssens, W. Dieleman, S. Luyssaert, J-A. Subke, M. Reichstein, R. Ceulemans, P. Ciais, A. J. Dolman, J. Grace, G. Matteucci, D. Papale, S. L. Piao, E-D. Schulze, J. Tang and B. E. Law


The use of fossil fuels and fertilizers has increased the amount of biologically reactive nitrogen in the atmosphere over the past century. A meta-analysis suggests that nitrogen deposition typically impedes the decomposition of carbon in forest soils, significantly reducing carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere.



High nitrous oxide production from thawing permafrost pp332 - 335

Bo Elberling, Hanne H. Christiansen and Birger U. Hansen


The impact of thawing permafrost on the nitrogen cycle is uncertain. Laboratory experiments using permafrost cores from northeast Greenland reveal that rewetting of thawed permafrost increases nitrous oxide production by over 20-fold.

Soil-carbon response to warming dependent on microbial physiology pp336 - 340

Steven D. Allison, Matthew D.Wallenstein and Mark A. Bradford


The loss of carbon dioxide from soils increases initially under climate warming, but tends to decline to control levels within a few years. Simulations of the soil carbon response to warming with a microbial enzyme model show that a decline in both microbial biomass and the production of degrading enzymes can explain this attenuation response.

Abiotic nitrous oxide emission from the hypersaline Don Juan Pond in Antarctica pp341 - 344

Vladimir A. Samarkin, Michael T. Madigan, Marshall W. Bowles, Karen L. Casciotti, John C. Priscu, Christopher P. McKay and Samantha B. Joye


Nitrous oxide is a potent atmospheric greenhouse gas that is thought to be produced in soils through biological processes. Field measurements reveal nitrous oxide fluxes near Don Juan Pond, Antarctica — of comparable magnitude to those found in tropical soils — which may result from abiotic water–rock reactions.



Soil sampling in serenity p372


Vladimir Samarkin, Michael Madigan and colleagues travelled to Don Juan Pond in Antarctica, in an attempt to understand life on Mars. Instead, they discovered an unexpected link between the geosphere and atmosphere.


From the archives


News and Views

Soil-water bypass

Fred M. Phillips


Hydrologists have thought of soil as a kind of giant sponge that soaks up precipitation and slowly releases it to streams. But according to new evidence the soil water used by vegetation may be largely decoupled from the water that flows through soils to streams.

Fire's black legacy

Caroline M. Preston


Forest fires convert a small portion of burning vegetation into charred solid residues such as charcoal. A survey of Scandinavian forest soils reveals that charcoal has a highly patchy distribution, and a shorter-than-expected lifetime.

Heat-proof carbon compound

Cindy Prescott


Two-thirds of terrestrial carbon is stored as organic matter in soils, but its response to warming has yet to be resolved. A soil warming experiment in a Canadian forest has revealed that the leaf-derived compound cutin is resistant to decomposition under elevated temperatures.



Large N2O emissions from cryoturbated peat soil in tundra

Maija E. Repo, Sanna Susiluoto, Saara E. Lind, Simo Jokinen, Vladimir Elsakov, Christina Biasi, Tarmo Virtanen & Pertti J. Martikainen


Nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas whose concentration is increasing in the atmosphere; the highest emissions have been observed from agricultural and tropical soils. Now, measurements in subarctic East European tundra show that bare surfaces on permafrost peatlands, known as peat circles, release large quantities of nitrous oxide.

Molybdenum limitation of asymbiotic nitrogen fixation in tropical forest soils

Alexander R. Barron, Nina Wurzburger, Jean Phillipe Bellenger, S. Joseph Wright, Anne M. L. Kraepiel & Lars O. Hedin


Biological nitrogen fixation limits plant growth and carbon exchange at local to global scales. Long-term nutrient manipulation experiments in forests and short-term manipulation experiments in microcosms suggest that the micronutrient molybdenum, a component of the nitrogen-fixing enzyme nitrogenase, limits nitrogen fixation by asymbiotic bacteria in tropical soils in Panama.

Australian climate—carbon cycle feedback reduced by soil black carbon

Johannes Lehmann, Jan Skjemstad, Saran Sohi, John Carter, Michele Barson, Pete Falloon, Kevin Coleman, Peter Woodbury & Evelyn Krull


Global warming is likely to increase soil organic carbon decomposition, and thus CO2 release to the atmosphere, creating a positive feedback cycle. Inclusion of realistic estimates of soil black carbon in a climate model results in a decrease in soil CO2 emissions in Australia by up to 24.4% following a 3 °C warming over 100 years, suggesting that black carbon reduces the strength of this feedback.

Tropical-cyclone-driven erosion of the terrestrial biosphere from mountains

Robert G. Hilton, Albert Galy, Niels Hovius, Meng-Chiang Chen, Ming-Jame Horng & Hongey Chen


The transfer of organic carbon from the terrestrial biosphere to the oceans via erosion and riverine transport constitutes an important component of the global carbon cycle. Measurements of particulate organic carbon load and composition in the LiWu River, Taiwan, during cyclone-triggered floods suggest that tropical cyclones may facilitate the delivery of non-fossil particulate organic carbon to the ocean and its subsequent burial.



Arsenic release from paddy soils during monsoon flooding

Linda C. Roberts, Stephan J. Hug, Jessica Dittmar, Andreas Voegelin, Ruben Kretzschmar, Bernhard Wehrli, Olaf A. Cirpka, Ganesh C. Saha, M. Ashraf Ali & A. Borhan M. Badruzzaman


Bangladesh relies heavily on groundwater for the irrigation of dry-season rice. Analysis of soil porewater and floodwater in rice paddy fields during the monsoon season in Bangladesh suggests that flooding removes a significant amount of arsenic from the soils.

The contribution of manure and fertilizer nitrogen to atmospheric nitrous oxide since 1860

Eric A. Davidson


Atmospheric concentrations of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, have increased since 1860. A regression model indicates that conversion of 2% of manure nitrogen and 2.5% of fertilizer nitrogen could explain the pattern of increasing nitrous oxide concentrations between 1860 and 2005, including a rise in the rate of increase around 1960.

High stocks of soil organic carbon in the North American Arctic region

Chien-Lu Ping, Gary J. Michaelson, Mark T. Jorgenson, John M. Kimble, Howard Epstein, Vladimir E. Romanovsky & Donald A. Walker


The Arctic soil organic-carbon pool is poorly constrained. Measurements of soil organic carbon in the North American Arctic reveal that the carbon store in this region is larger than previous estimates suggest, and highly dependent on landscape type.

Mechanisms for retention of bioavailable nitrogen in volcanic rainforest soils

Dries Huygens, Pascal Boeckx, Pamela Templer, Leandro Paulino, Oswald Van Cleemput, Carlos Oyarzún, Christoph Müller & Roberto Godoy


Pristine temperate rainforests are known to produce large amounts of bioavailable nitrogen, with only minimal loss. Tracing 15N in volcanic soils of a temperate evergreen rainforest in southern Chile helps to further unravel the retention mechanisms for bioavailable nitrogen in these ecosystems.

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